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Don't fight, share: Charles Green (below), of Helios Towers Africa, argues that it is vital for Africa's mobile operators to share infrastructure rather than compete if the telecoms momentum is not to stall.

Africa is changing fast - and for the better. While huge challenges remain, there is a new sense of optimism across the continent. There is no more obvious sign of this change, and the possibilities it brings, than in the extraordinary way Africa has adopted the mobile phone.

The growth has been staggering. The 16m mobile subscribers in Africa in 2000 have now reached over 500m. So it is no surprise that the mobile communications revolution is widely recognised as a major driver in Africa's economic development. Academic studies have suggested that a 10% increase in mobile penetration rates is linked with a 0.6% rise in economic growth rates.

Danger of stalling

It is also why, of course, there are concerns that this communications revolution - and the progress it drives - is in danger of stalling because of a lack of investment in the necessary infrastructure.

Unless we find ways to extend coverage, the danger is that rural areas will miss out on the opportunities that mobile communications are bringing. It is in these areas, of course, where banks and markets are many miles away and transport links are worst.

Unless we tackle the problem of capacity, the already serious problem of failed connections in many urban areas will worsen.

Even more importantly, we will deny African businesses and individuals the chance to use data services that are rapidly becoming indispensable.

This is already happening. Mobile voice traffic is expected to double between 2009 and 2012. But data growth is even stronger. In some markets in Africa which have 3G coverage, it has already surpassed voice traffic.

Demand will only increase. But at the moment, in many parts of the continent, we simply don't have the bandwidth to deliver these services, let alone meet future demand.

The scale of the investment needed in new infrastructure such as mobile towers to carry signals is large. It has been estimated, that without an increase in the sharing of infrastructure, the number of towers will have to at least double from the present 75,000 over the next five years.

But putting in place and maintaining this infrastructure is becoming increasingly expensive for mobile operators. They are being asked to make this investment when revenues per customer are falling as governments open up their markets to competition.

There are also environmental and health and safety concerns. Few communities or politicians want to see a series of competing towers erected by mobile operators in their neighbourhood.

Courage to share

The answer to this challenge, as so often in life, is cooperation. We need the industry to find the courage to agree to share towers. There is nothing new in this way forward. As markets mature and move away from the importance of being first, it is the natural solution.

We have seen the switch to the industry-sharing infrastructure in the US, in Europe, in India and South America. In fact, around 50% of mobile towers in the US and 60% in India are now owned and run by independent companies who cut costs for operators while ensuring equal access.

It is also already happening in Africa. In Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, DRC and South Africa, encouraged by regulators, we have seen a major switch to the mobile infrastructure passing from operators to independent tower companies. Governments, mobile phone companies and the businesses and consumers they serve are all gaining.

For governments, sharing infrastructure means more mobile connections and more revenue and an end to competing towers being put up next to each other. For regulators, it makes it easier for new entrants to come into the market as they escape the intimidating upfront cost of putting in new towers.

Existing mobile operators also gain by seeing coverage and capacity increased without the cost and risk of building, maintaining and running towers. And businesses and consumers, of course, all benefit from lower tariffs and a better service which more people can enjoy.

The spread of mobile technology in sub-Saharan Africa has been a remarkable success story. But we can't be complacent. Connections remain lower than everywhere but South Asia. As communications become more important for social development and economic growth, Africa can't afford to get left behind.

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(Charles Green, chief executive officer of Helios Towers Africa was chief financial officer and global head of finance of Crown Castle International, one of the world's largest independent tower operators)
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Title Annotation:GUEST COLUMN
Comment:Don't fight, share: Charles Green (below), of Helios Towers Africa, argues that it is vital for Africa's mobile operators to share infrastructure rather than compete if the telecoms momentum is not to stall.(GUEST COLUMN)
Author:Green, Charles
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jan 1, 2012
Words:732
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